In an instant the world you know can change. So many writings discuss events where the world of the protagonist changes through one dramatic event. The before life, shows a world of independent thinking, freedom, choice and hope. The event – symbolic or not – rocks the foundation of that world. The after-life represents all the fears one may have worked hard to avoid. The challenge then becomes the process of acceptance. My mother’s car accident changed her life, while accentuating the assets and liabilities already in play in my life.
Mom totaled her car. She came around a bend going faster than expected and caught air. In flight, the car spun around and came down in a wooded area off the road hitting trees in the back of the car and all along the left side. The front left part of the engine was smashed in, as well a the back-side.
For most young persons, this type of accident would be a coming of age story where the young hero walks away without a scratch. Youth heals, and the tale would perhaps be the campfire storytelling of a vivid lead up to the climatic clash with a ferocious tree! For Mom, this accident represented a life changed – where the world she knew would no longer exist.
Mom will no longer drive. Mom will no longer be able to live in the house she has lived in for almost 50 years. Mom will no longer be able to act on her intellectual impulse. She will only feel constant pain. The arthritis will only increase, and Mom will never be able to pick up anything heavier than her purse. In essence, her ability to care for herself, by herself, cannot be. Dependency overtakes and overwhelms.
My sister called about two hours after the accident had occurred, when the doctors were running the tests. I then quickly tied loose ends together, and got into hospital mode. I had practice with this type of emergency because Mom, hospitalized last year during the Sandy Hurricane, broke her pelvis. After securing care for Max, my son, I made a sandwich, at the suggestion of a friend, to make sure I ate gluten-free before becoming wrapped into the hospital’s drama. On my way, I stopped for gas. I got there approximately two hours after the phone call, and felt a pang of guilt that it wasn’t fast enough.
Mom went to the same hospital, and so the steps to her room triggered memories of fear. Yet when I approached her room, the feelings swelled inside me in a new way, as if approaching a passage way into another dimension. Whereas the previous stay, tamed by the lack of severity, this stay would signal the beginning of an end. I walked into the room where she laid, swollen and drugged, and almost fainted.
I looked for water to calm my nerves and to find my breadth. My thoughts were racing and no single one penetrated a phrase that signaled what I was feeling. I tried to find my balance as I quickly searched for a cup of water at the nurses station. My nephew followed me from the urging of his “nurse” wife. He asked if I was alright. This familiar fainting feeling resembled the morning I almost passed out of the subway from a vasovagel response from iron depletion. My nutrients escaped from my brain. I was about to hit the floor when the water touched my lips, and I was somehow brought back to face my fear of death.
Mom cracked jokes in-between saying how stupid she felt. She vacillated between highs and lows like riding a roller coaster. Her thoughts, like slippery hands trying to hang onto a greased pole, were in one moment coherent and in the next mumblings. Her slurred speech clearly showed that she was not truly present to the events unfolding.
So as the evening turned to night, and night to early morning, I slipped away while she slept. Driving the 40 minute journey back to the city, my emotional exhaustion really could not grasp the changes. Intellectually, I understood, but emotionally I refused to feel.
The doctor scheduled Mom’s surgery on the third day in the hospital. The swelling throughout her injuries needed to subside. The shattered upper left arm beneath her broken collar-bone needed plates and pins. No one seemed concerned about her arthritis ridden back and leg pains which plagued her over the last six months, which ‘miraculously’ disappeared with the multitude of percosets she ate every 3 hours. Like a shadow thought that sits in the back of the brain never showing itself but shrouding all thoughts, I knew the worst pain was yet to come.
I never spoke about these feelings in the presence of my mother. When I tried to broach the subject with my sister, she, in her own way to survive her feelings, pushed back to keep this in the present. In meetings with friends I shared my concern, but little in the way of feedback played out. There was no more than a nod or “sorry to hear about your mother” response. My private feelings sat heavy, wearing me out as each day passed.
The surgery went well, and during the doctor’s follow-up meeting the next morning, she cracked jokes to a very patient doctor, while I tried to deflect her humor to the seriousness of the meeting. Mom’s coping mechanism against heavy feelings plays out with making funny faces and cracking jokes. She’s perfected this skill of deflection. Feelings are not her forte, and she always believed that people would naturally work through them. But this life and death situation depends on a healthy attitude about life, and to bring forward, at one’s base of thinking, acceptance. Mom’s challenge would yet unfold. Her new life would take away freedoms she had not yet fully processed.
About a week after the surgery Mom transferred to a rehabilitation hospital. My oldest sister, Mom’s medical proxy, daily tended to Mom’s medical and spiritual needs. I was able to visit around my work schedule at least one day during the week and on weekends. Daily, my sister and I would phone convo to go over strategy plans to bring Mom to a more positive view of recovery. Sis had a tough road, and she handled each day with grace and ease. The tasks were all to familiar since Sis had walked her significant other through the process of dying two years before.
When I could make my way to the hospital around my work schedule, I kept company with Mom. We watched old movies that we had each seen a hundred times, and gossiped about the actors. In fact, whoever showed up was basically watching old movies with Mom. But when She and I watched movies, it was like it had always been since I was a child – passing time as a way of finding a common ground.
My sister and I scheduled family to make sure that each evening there was always someone visiting. Our intent to help Mom feel positive about her healing process worked as long as a live body kept her company. During the downtimes, she became despondent. Each morning into afternoon, Mom vacillated between acceptance and fear. My sister got the brunt of this up and down, and would call to fill me in. We were both afraid that she would in an instant, give up.
Lying on her back, day after day, with now only the occasional painkiller, the arthritis slowly reappeared. Her physical therapist provided the exercises to heal the arm, yet no doctor could cure that merging dull pain that had previously gone through a series of epidurals prior to the accident. Dull gave way to sharp episodes, which eventually become a single stream of unending discomfort.
Where the hospital provided a safe haven to heal, Mom yearned for self-sufficiency. Her wishful thinking laid out a picture that she could return to her house, and live her life. Yet we knew the truth; that the world she had come to accept, would be no more. She was officially dependent.
The process for each of her daughters has been to realign each’s commitment to my mother in her last years. It would need showing up; sitting patiently watching her move uncomfortably through the pain; watching movies, cooking meals, running errands or just biding some time between conversations that avoided acknowledgment of such care. Sacrificing our selfish interests would hopefully give relief to her fear that she would be alone.
Mom’s pride always starts the conversation when we ask how she’s doing. It gets in the way of asking for help. If we show up, help is there. Yet a decorum is needed to dance around her exhortations of “I can take care of myself!”
We exclaim, “No, really Mom, I had no plans for the weekend, and I thought just to come out to spend time with you.” Estelle demands, “You can come as long as you aren’t taking care of me – I’m fine!”
So although a ruse progresses, I willingly do all that I can to experience all that there is. By giving my time, I give my gift of love. But returning home with such frequency does have some on the job hazards. Each time I enter her house (my childhood home) memories come in and out. Downstairs I relive my Ken and Barbie days, watching TV, and growing up in my imagination. As I go into the darker closets, growing pains bring memories of shame and frustration. Although prone to obsess and regret, I busy myself, and play a recovery tape that tells me to accept myself for just as i am in that moment; not who I was worlds past. Just for today, I am present for this closure.